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Metamorphosis in Polarities: The Impact of Kawai Kanjirō on New Zealand Potter James Greig

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posted on 2023-09-14, 03:26 authored by Kumiko Jacolin

James Greig (1936–1986), a New Zealand potter active between 1958 and 1986, was greatly inspired by Kawai Kanjirō (1890–1966), who was one of the founding members of the Mingei (Japanese folk crafts movement). To date, Greig’s achievement has received insufficient scholarly attention. This thesis aims to explore Greig’s philosophy and artwork through mixed empirical methods, qualitative oral histories, and analysis of archival materials, letters, images and films. After documenting the contexts of the historical interactions between Japanese and New Zealand potters, Greig’s career in pottery is framed through an analysis stretching from his early life, encounters with Japan and on to personal and institutional support for his later learning, writing and exhibitions.

The development of New Zealand studio pottery when Greig began his career in the early 1960s was shaped by the visits of advocates of Mingei movement from Britain and Japan. This thesis examines the integration of Japanese-style pottery into the ceramic art practice of New Zealand from the 1940s to the 1960s. It also explores significant figures within the New Zealand and Japanese art scenes who facilitated an active pottery movement in New Zealand. These initiators inspired Greig’s motivation for creating Japanese-style pottery and his discovery of Kawai’s work.

Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1970s led to the formation of a new relationship with New Zealand and created a favourable environment for potters, whose artworks were displayed at Expo ’70 in Osaka. This study reveals Greig’s critical role as a cultural ambassador between Japan and New Zealand that he played at the time of the opening of the new cultural relationship between the two nations. Examining Greig’s career between 1969 to 1986 creates another lens through which his underlying intentions and idiosyncratic approach (his “gesture”) become clear and should be better appreciated. The heart of this thesis is the transcription and analysis of Greig’s handwritten manuscript (four unpublished notebooks) for a planned book on Kawai in 1983. It details Greig’s spiritual vision for handcrafted pottery as enabling “access to the universal spirit” and creating a new “universal language of forms” to express “the formative forces” of the “archetypes and real sources of art”. The discussion also shows the influence of Rudolph Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of anthroposophy, on Greig. Steiner’s ideas on the polarities of life and consciousness, body/soul/spirit and his interpretation of The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) by German Romantic author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) further inspired Greig and his subsequent development of pottery as a transformative practice. This thesis also offers a technical analysis of Greig’s artwork with a focus on his exhibitions in New Zealand. Greig’s key concepts of “life growth, intersecting planes, polarities, ‘solid and void’, emblem and transformations”, are explored through his manuscript, catalogue, his artworks and their impact on Japan and New Zealand (Greig 1982h).

Greig’s life and work demonstrate that he worked in an environment which was moving rapidly, both economically and culturally. His achievement as an artist potter and his philosophy and artworks themselves transcended his times.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Art History; Culture and Context; Design and Culture; International Relations; Japanese; Museum and Heritage Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

130103 The creative arts; 139999 Other culture and society not elsewhere classified; 280116 Expanding knowledge in language, communication and culture; 280122 Expanding knowledge in creative arts and writing studies

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

1 Pure basic research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Wang, Yiyan; Gabrakova, Dennitza

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